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Book Reviews

Book Reviews for Winter-Spring 2012

FICTION
His Dream of the Skyland, The Walled City Trilogy, Book 1
By Anne Opotowsky (COM’93), Illustrated by Aya Morton Fiction (Gestalt Publishing Pty. Ltd.)

Reading Opotowsky’s graphic novel is like slipping into a giant riddle. And that’s probably as the author and artist Morton would have it. Each page of this first book in The Walled City Trilogy is seamlessly stitched together in a series of vivid images and sparse text that hint at deeper, yet-to-be-discovered meanings.

Central character Song Lu is like the human version of Dumbo—big-eared awkwardness masking true heart and hidden talent. He lives in the red-light Wan Chai district of Hong Kong with his fortune-teller mother in the mid-1920s. His father is mostly out of the picture after being arrested yet again for stealing, although he remains a constant in Lu’s memories. The family relies on the boy’s job at the Kowloon Post Office to stay afloat.

But the diligent Lu quickly sees that his hard work sorting and organizing “dead letters,” those without a current address, is not welcome. “May I explain to you that it is not acceptable to be doing extra work,” says his boss, K. Y. Lo. “You should do the exact amount of work that is required. Nothing more. Do you understand?”

Lu does, and eventually discovers that his boss suspiciously shelves all letters to Kowloon’s Walled City, where Hong Kong’s untouchables live. Lu and his acrobat friend Yubo dedicate hours to mapping and searching for the homes of these letters’ recipients. The challenge seems perfect for the duo, who enjoy solving riddles in their spare time.

The adventure leads Lu deep into the Walled City’s labyrinthine roads and the lives of its mysterious residents. He meets “the egg man,” who emerges as a de facto leader of the musicians, artists, and undocumented Hong Kong residents living there. He also witnesses how death and opium addiction can ruin the lives of the most talented and how money and power can turn authorities’ eyes away from injustices done to those who have neither.

Sporadically, a narrative voice pops up on page corners. Its identity remains unknown, but it sows wisdom in unexpected places. “Do you understand need? It helps if you do. Why we need, when we need. What we never receive…He—the boy, the young man almost—he understood that naturally.”

The end of the story leaves Lu, master puzzler and unlikely boy hero, without answers in a world that seems rigged against him and his friends. But, as the glossary reminds equally frustrated readers, this is just “the end of the start. Puzzle me in and puzzle me out.” The two sequels promise to deliver answers to the riddles spun in His Dream of the Skyland. ~Leslie Friday

Nanjing Requiem
By Ha Jin (GRS’94) Fiction (Pantheon Books, Random House)

In his harrowing and heart-breaking new novel, Jin turns his attention to one of the most brutal crimes against humanity in modern history: the Japanese invasion and occupation of Nanjing, China, in 1937, commonly referred to as the rape of Nanjing.

The novel opens in December of that year. At the time, the ancient walled city was the capital of China’s nationalist government. As Japan’s Imperial Army advances, Chiang Kai-shek’s forces and the government have retreated to safer ground, leaving the city’s inhabitants to fend for themselves. The only people left to protect the civilians are a small group of Westerners, mostly Americans, Germans, and British, who set up a safety zone in a desperate attempt to provide refuge for the city’s population.

While Nanjing Requiem is a work of fiction, Jin, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of creative writing, draws heavily on historical fact to describe the barbaric rape, plunder, and murder that occurred at the hands of the occupying army. Over the six weeks after the city fell, an estimated 300,000 Chinese were killed and some 50,000 women were raped by Japanese soldiers.

Much of the novel is set at Jinling Women’s College, founded by American missionaries, which becomes a refuge for 10,000 of the city’s women and children. As violence erupts throughout Nanjing, college employees struggle to provide food, housing, and most perilously of all, some modicum of safety for the terrified occupants.

At the story’s outset, Bam, a 15-year-old messenger for the college, has just returned after being kidnapped by Japanese soldiers and forced to work as a slave. The horrors he witnessed—a world where “human lives suddenly became worthless, dead bodies everywhere, some with their bellies cut open, their intestines spilled out, and some half burned with gasoline”—are a prelude to the atrocities that follow.

The book is narrated by the fictional Chinese woman Anling, an assistant to the college’s acting head. The Japanese invasion will shatter her family, but it is the novel’s main character, Minnie Vautrin, based on an actual American-born missionary of the same name, who is the emotional epicenter. The real Vautrin was, in fact, interim dean when the Japanese invaded. Jin drew on her diaries and correspondence in writing the novel.

Winner of the National Book Award for his novel Waiting and the recipient of three PEN/Faulkner awards, Jin has created memorable female characters, but the fictionalized Vautrin is arguably his most fully realized. He depicts her as a fiercely intelligent and capable administrator, who shows enormous courage in the wake of the invasion. Her heroic deeds here, as in real life, earned her the nickname “the Goddess of Mercy.”

But despite saving thousands of lives, Vautrin was haunted by the women she couldn’t protect. Her subsequent nervous breakdown and suicide, in 1941, are a grim reminder that war continues to claim casualties long after the fighting is over and order—at least on the surface—has been restored.

Nanjing Requiem offers no easy explanations for the events of nearly 75 years ago. Nor does it offer happy endings. By the novel’s conclusion, the wreckage—physical, psychological, and spiritual—is so complete and the cataclysm so devastating that it can’t help but invite comparisons to the ethnic cleansing in Serbia and Bosnia in the 1990s and the genocide in Rwanda that same decade. Jin’s elegant, spare prose renders the plight of a doomed city and makes it unforgettable. ~John O’Rourke

Night Swim
By Jessica Keener (CAS’79) Fiction (Fiction Studio Books)

Told in the voice of 16-year-old Sarah Kunitz, Keener’s poignant coming-of-age novel portrays the private torments and tragic turns of a pampered suburban Massachusetts family in the early 1970s.

Unfolding in the shadow of the Vietnam War, Keener’s pitch-perfect tale chronicles Sarah’s struggle for honest love and spiritual clarity as her drugged, somnambulist mother slips away from her, first emotionally and then literally, in a possibly suicidal car crash. Left with her two brothers—one older, bolstered by a spitfire sarcastic wit, one younger, fragile and naïve—Sarah stumbles through her own sexual awakening as her pompous academic father cavorts with a younger colleague, a blameless woman frantic to win the hearts of children who see her as a tone-deaf interloper.

There are no real demons in this cast of flawed characters, each redeemed, ultimately, in his or her own way. From Sarah’s ominous Cheever-esque descriptions of her parents’ cocktail parties and her mother’s pill-popping to the delicately drawn character of Dora, the family’s black live-in housekeeper, Keener illuminates issues of class, marital fidelity, clinical depression, race, and anti-Semitism. She does so with exquisite restraint. We can imagine, based on her sparely charted set pieces and Sarah’s mix of entitlement and shame toward Dora, how it must feel to be the servant thrust into the tough-love role of mother in this crumbling, emotionally unruly family. Keener is at her most lyrical when putting words to the gaping loss of a mother who both enchanted and infuriated her children, an inscrutable woman who, although often sadly out of reach, could rejoin the world to be exuberant, attentive, and playful.

“Time made things worse, not better,” Sarah muses. “Her leaving dug in, scratched and ached.” Framed thinly as a flashback, the narrative assures us from the outset that Sarah will come through all of this sturdy, self-aware, with children of her own, despite being forever a motherless child with, as she puts it, “this ineluctable hole in my heart.”
~Susan Seligson

The Odds
By Stewart O’Nan (GRS’83) Fiction (Viking)

When we first meet Art and Marion Fowler, the couple at the center of O’Nan’s latest novel, they are en route to Niagara Falls for Valentine’s Day weekend (they had honeymooned there nearly 30 years before). But this trip has the whiff of desperation, not romance. The Fowlers’ marriage is collapsing, and they face imminent financial ruin. Niagara Falls is an apt metaphor for their emotional state: both have arrived at a precipice.

O’Nan’s fans will recognize these characters. Middle-aged and middle class, they find themselves bewildered by the toll life has exacted, each haunted by past mistakes, regrets, and recriminations. Unemployed, his home about to be foreclosed, Art is suddenly mulling his past, unable to locate the “one crucial misstep” that has brought him to this point. But he is also a romantic, a man who has lost nearly everything, but is determined to win back what he can.

Before leaving for Niagara Falls, Art hatches a plan to gamble the couple’s remaining savings—all $8,000—at the resort’s casino in a last-ditch attempt to avoid foreclosure. At the heart of O’Nan’s novel: can he pull it off?

Marion is her husband’s emotional opposite: a pragmatic, emotionally brittle realist haunted by her husband’s long-ago extramarital affair and her own disastrous affair with another woman. It would be easy to dismiss these characters as the financial meltdown’s latest casualties, but O’Nan imbues them with such humanity that you can’t help rooting for them. As the weekend progresses and the hours slip away, you know their time is running out, and can’t help but hope that luck—something that has eluded these two of late—will turn in their favor. The reader is asked to consider: what are the odds that two people, lost to themselves and to each other, can find their footing? ~John O’Rourke

The Thorn and the Blossom
By Theodora Goss (GRS’98,’12) Fiction (Quirk Books)

In Goss’ inventive novel, readers see both sides of a love story through the book’s accordion-style binding, with Evelyn Morgan’s story alternating with Brendan Thorne’s. It is a classic tale of star-crossed lovers, but with a fantastical twist.

Evelyn and Brendan meet in his father’s bookshop while she is vacationing in the Cornish village of Clews. To Brendan, she is “the answer to the loneliness he’d felt since he was a child and that others didn’t seem to feel.” After a whirlwind week together, Evelyn flees abruptly, leaving Brendan confused. Their paths don’t cross again for 10 years, when they must decide whether they are meant to be together. The story’s surprise ending satisfies, especially for those allergic to predictable and sappy romances.

Although not a fantasy novel, the book has moments of surrealism, reflected in Evelyn’s “incidents.” She used to see “fairies in the garden. Small green and brown things, with wings like an insect’s.” This returns in a different form, affecting her relationship with Brendan.

The two-perspective format gives a broader context. The second narrative is a bit repetitive in the beginning, but enlightening at the end as the reader is able to fill in gaps in plot and character development.

Goss is most convincing writing from the point of view of the complex and believable Evelyn, whose insecurities and desires a young reader can identify with. She grows from a meek, studious young woman in the grip of her parents, struggling to pursue her own dreams, to a fulfilled, confident individual.

Charged with innocent, youthful dreams of finding true love in spite of bad timing, The Thorn and the Blossom leaves the reader believing, at least for a while, in the promise of a new life. ~Allison Thomasseau (COM’14)

NONFICTION
Lip Service: Smiles in Life, Death, Trust, Lies, Work, Memory, Sex, and Politics
By Marianne LaFrance (GRS’71,’74) Nonfiction (W. W. Norton & Company)

Let the record show that even a fleeting image of a smiling face is enough to boost a viewer’s mood, even produce a “mini emotional high.” In all aspects of discourse, from business transactions to sex, smiling matters, and Lip Service offers a lively, instructive compendium of smile research and pop culture lore. Whether spontaneous or voluntary, the contraction of the zygomaticus major muscle has spawned a vast science, and LaFrance, a professor of psychology and of women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Yale University, is a mirthful guide. Her illustrated volume, laced throughout with smile-related passages from literature, theater, and film, is likely to leave readers with a whole new appreciation of the evolutionary, cultural, and social rewards resulting from even the slightest upturn of the lip corners and contraction of the eye muscles.

Strategic smiles, ghoulish smiles, innocent smiles, service smiles, camera smiles, politicians’ smiles—these are just some of the hefty glossary of grins deconstructed in Lip Service, which also contains sections on what happens when we can’t smile, because of autism or the paralytic effects of Bell’s palsy. For example, when that disease leaves a young mother temporarily unable to smile at her child, the toddler cries that she wants her real mommy back. The author also considers how American smiles fare in other cultures, with smile etiquettes of their own. And, yes, she offers a brief history of that ubiquitous icon, the smiley face.

“A smile is a good deal more than a simple, pleasant facial display,” LaFrance writes. As a social psychologist who has devoted decades to the study of facial expressions, she leaves us thoroughly convinced that the science of smiles, and smiles themselves, is endlessly intriguing. ~SS

Radio My Way
Ron Della Chiesa (CGS’57, COM’59) with Erica Ferencik Nonfiction (Pearson)

Half autobiography, half compendium of celebrity profiles, this endearing book is well-known Boston radio host Della Chiesa’s valentine to the medium.

As a child, Della Chiesa, born a decade before television, in 1938, was transfixed by The Lone Ranger, Duffy’s Tavern, and The Shadow when he wasn’t listening to his artist father singing arias along with the great Italian tenors of the day. He went on to a long, illustrious broadcasting career at WBOS, WBCN, WBUR, and other radio stations, finding a permanent home at WGBH, where he hosted Morning Pro Musica as well as crowd-pleasers Music America and Strictly Sinatra.

Rich in anecdotal grace notes, the book pays tender tribute to the music makers, and especially to his wife, chef Joyce Scardina Della Chiesa, of Turtle Café fame, who he married late and to whom he devotes an entire chapter. (After being introduced by friends, he summoned the courage to ask her out, and she declined: “I have this big pile of ironing to finish up.”)

Della Chiesa describes the “joy on one hand, and such melancholy on the other,” when in 1995 WGBH abruptly canceled Music America. The move prompted an outcry from listeners across the state who had come to regard him as a friend. After getting a call from a man whose wife was dying of cancer, Della Chiesa played the woman’s favorite song, Sinatra singing “Time after Time,” as often as he could. On the day of the last show, the Boston Globe ran an editorial titled “The Day the Music Dies?”

Now the voice of the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Symphony Hall and Tanglewood and host, with Joyce, of WGBH Learning Tours, Della Chiesa has over the course of his career interviewed, and in many cases forged lasting friendships with, music greats, among them Luciano Pavarotti, Stan Getz, Lionel Hampton, Sammy Cahn, Benny Carter, André Previn, and Bobby Short, as well as comic giants Jean Shepherd and Mort Sahl and crime novelist Robert B. Parker (GRS’57,’71), who once wrote Music America into a car stakeout scene. Della Chiesa sketches these varied personalities in compact profiles, many illustrated with photos of him beaming alongside them. Each chapter concludes with a list of suggested recordings or readings.

From his descriptions of his middle-aged foray into marathon running to his early radio gaffes to his desolation at the breakup of his first marriage, Della Chiesa tells his story with good humor and a touch of humility. Thanks to four decades of on- and off-air memories, a vigorous marriage, and a passion for music, food, and all things Boston, he’s still having the time of his life. ~SS

Someone Else’s Twin: The True Story of Babies Switched at Birth
By Nancy L. Segal (CAS’73) Nonfiction (Prometheus Books)

Scientists wading deep into the nature vs nurture debate occasionally get lucky—they are handed documentable situations where identical twins have been reared separately. Each story fascinates. Consider the case of twin boys born in Trinidad in 1933 and separated at six months old. They ended up on opposite sides of history—one was raised Jewish by his father in the West Indies, the other was raised Catholic by his mother in Nazi Germany. Their identities were forged in the context of their environments, and more chilling to contemplate, each could have become the other in most ways, had circumstances been different.

In her career as a psychologist and twin expert, Segal has hungered for stories like this, and any unusual, compelling pairings, such as twins separated when one is inadvertently switched with another infant at birth, or so-called virtual twins, same-age unrelated children reared together. These are real-life turns in The Comedy of Errors and The Parent Trap.

But hilarity does not ensue, as illustrated by the more convoluted, and in Segal’s word, “irresistible,” tale that drove her, in 2008, to write this book. In a turn of events that drew front-page headlines around the world, identical twins Delia and Begona were switched at birth at a hospital in the Canary Islands, sending their parents home with “fraternal” twins Begona and Beatriz, and Delia to be raised by other parents. The mistake was discovered in 2001, when the three turned 28, as the result of several chance encounters.

Woven throughout with fascinating nuggets from the relatively intimate world of scholarly twin studies, Segal’s narrative follows the story of the three girls, the emotional costs to each, and the legal tangles that resulted when their true identities became known. It’s a head-spinning tale, one that turns disbelief into queasy consternation.

“How do mothers know their own children?” Segal asks. It wasn’t until about 1900, when women began giving birth in hospitals, that the question arose, but since then there has been a string of confirmed cases, and who knows how many unconfirmed ones, of infants switched at birth.

In contemplating the emotions of all those affected by the Canary Islands case, Segal recounts instances of mothers told “not to worry” when they voiced fears that the infant handed them was not their own. In one extreme case, writes Segal, a Wisconsin woman “knew” for 40 years that the infant she’d been given was not hers. “She didn’t pursue the matter because she was afraid of hurting her marriage and causing a stir in her small town,” Segal writes.

Fortunately, similar stirrings among today’s parents can be settled with a DNA test. But the twins’ saga is timeless in the questions it raises about how we become the people we are. With Someone Else’s Twin, Segal has written a page-turner of a human narrative that is also a legal thriller and a scientific case study. ~SS

POETRY
Lantana Strangling Ixora
By Sasenarine Persaud (GRS’06) Poetry (TSAR Books)

Persaud’s poetry collection is informed by a sense of geographical and cultural limbo, in which the poet either mourns or tries to salvage the notes of beauty, passion, and cultural richness that are increasingly drowned out in a noisy, shrinking world. The volume is titled for two native flowers gone global, suggesting that the South American creeping lantana, with its lavender blossoms, is crowding out the fragrant ixora, popular in Hindu rituals and spreading worldwide from its origins in the poet’s native Guyana. Persaud weaves popular culture imagery into elegant, Eastern-spiced verse in ways both playful and stinging. In “Mailstop,” a meditation on email, he writes of:

Nothing in the post
Since our cyber age—
no blade-edged envelope
no scents enclosed
by saliva or tonguelick
no serrated thumbprint
offering a window on the world
and now nothing
in the inbox
but a passion dissipated…

Many of Persaud’s poems could be called laments, if far-ranging ones. In “Stepping Back,” the poet grieves for “a less complicated time” and “our world,” both lost for good. But elsewhere he bathes in the here and now, as in “Longfellow Bridge, Boston,” where the architect’s

Vision twinkled that premature dusk
Through the wall of snow on the river.

In this collection, Persaud’s elegant poems, though they linger heavily on loss, are quietly reassuring. ~SS


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